Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the discussion centers on “Cuphead,” a video game by the Moldenhauer Brothers that evokes the spirit of the Fleischer Brothers . Let’s listen in on their conversation…
Gwen worked silently in her room, making notes in a script as she parsed through the pages. Lying on her bed in the silent day, she was struck by what appeared to be a muffled cry of grief from outside the window. She stopped, sat up, and waited for the noise to repeat itself. But nothing came.
“Hello?” Gwen put the script down, and peered out her window towards the street. Nothing seemed amiss – in fact, no one who could have emitted the cry was in sight. Gwen was just sitting back down on the bed when – perfect timing, she thought – the cry happened again. Longer, more indistinguishable words this time.
Gwen left her room and walked down the hallway. She had reached the front door, heading outside to check for the sound, when it came a third time – which clarified its source as not outdoors, but Eleanor’s room.
“Come on, you stupid little jelly bean soldiers, get out of my way!”
Gwen stood motionless.
“I think you have to jump over them,” came Dania’s voice. “Before they reach––”
“I mean, duh, I have to jump over them!” Eleanor responded tersely. “I just can’t do that when the only way to beat this damn muffin boss is to crouch while shooting!”
Gwen knocked softly on the door to Eleanor’s room
Inside, Eleanor’s face was mere inches from her laptop screen, engrossed in what appeared to be a Depression-era animated cartoon. In the court of a bouncy candy castle, a character in red – Eleanor, presumably – was dodging and weaving as it shot at, sure enough, a sentient muffin that leapt into the air to try and––
“Come on!” Eleanor shouted, as the muffin smashed her character into the ground. A card popped up on the screen, showing she was only halfway through the fight. Dania grumbled, watching.
“So, before you start again, can I ask…” Gwen began.
“It’s Cuphead,” Eleanor said. She breathed deeply, letting the anger run out. “It’s a video game, just came out.”
“Cuphead,” Gwen said, eyeing the screen. “Cool. It’s food themed?”
“Oh, no,” Dania said. “There’s a whole bunch of characters in it. This is just the candy-themed boss. Eleanor, show her the rest of it.”
“Fine,” Eleanor said. “I need a break from this sugar-coated nightmare for a second.”
“Breathe,” Dania advised. Eleanor did so as she exited the fight, landing her on a gorgeous watercolor painting of an island. The castle, and a nearby pyramid, bounced energetically against the still background.
“Okay, so it’s based on cartoons from the 1930s,” Eleanor explained. “All the animation is hand-drawn, and the designs are, you know, authentic.”
Gwen looked closely. Eleanor directed Cuphead around the map. The music played a jaunty seaside boardwalk rag, befitting the time period, speckled with the cracks and pops of a vinyl record.
“Which one should I show her?” Eleanor said. “Maybe the flower one?”
“No, the blimp lady one,” Dania said. “That’s really 30s.”
“And I can beat that one,” Eleanor agreed.
As she led Cuphead back around the islands, Gwen commented: “It’s impressively accurate the time period. I appreciate the film scratch filter over the whole game. Character designs are imaginative, too.”
“Oh yeah, they worked like crazy on it,” Eleanor said. “People have been waiting for this game for years. It was supposed to come out last year but they kept delaying it. So everyone got bitter that it was delayed, but turns out – really good game.”
“Not bad for people who’ve never designed a video game before,” Dania added.
“Okay, here’s the one. ‘Threatenin’ Zeppelin.'”
“Even that title, hold it here.” Gwen pointed to the screen. “The font, the layout, the coloring – even the subtle things like those stripes coming out around it. It’s so accurate to the 30s.”
“Agreed,” Eleanor said. “So anyway, here’s the game.”
She pressed enter, and the girls watched as a roundheaded boss – some kind of mashup between Olive Oyl and Pearl from Steven Universe – taunted Cuphead as he drove a biplane into view. Eleanor began frantically tapping the keyboard as she weaved around the screen, dodging stray projectiles and strafing the boss with bullets.
“I like this one,” Dania said. “Like, you get personality out of all the bosses, but something just sort of clicks with Hilda Berg.”
“Is that her name?”
“Yeah, it’s a pun. There’s a lot of those,” Dania said. Meanwhile, Hilda Berg had transformed into a bull-shaped cloud, charging at Cuphead’s plane.
“I hate Taurus,” Eleanor said. “The Gemini are easier to dodge.”
“So she turns into zodiac signs?” Gwen asked.
“Really picking it up fast, are we?” Eleanor asked.
“I just wanted to say that––” But Gwen was cut off by a groan from Eleanor, as “YOU DIED” plastered the darkened screen.
“Taurus, I swear.”
“I wanted to say that the zodiac-themed powers feels very 30s. Right in style.”
“Most of the bosses in the game transform into something. Mostly crazy things, it’s the 30s, so anything goes. Frogs that turn into slot machines, birds with guns for heads, blobs that become tombstones…”
“That last one feels like a stretch for transformation,” Gwen said.
“Well, the tombstone can still kill you,” Dania clarified.
“Ugh,” groaned Eleanor, as Cuphead was killed yet again.
“Oh, ‘I can beat this one,'” Dania said.
“Shut up, it’s hard!” Eleanor said.
“I know it’s hard!”
“It’s like, random-hard too. A lot of the obstacles are procedurally generated each fight, so it’s almost luck if you get the right combination of factors that lets you win.”
“Sounds frustrating,” Gwen said.
“A little – oh, come on!‘
“It looks simple, though,” Dania said. “Like, I watch her play it, and I’m thinking, ‘I could dodge all this stuff.’ But you let me try it and…”
“You fell right on your face,” Eleanor said. “And you were only fighting the blob monster.”
“I didn’t know he could keep attacking after he dies!” Dania grumbled.
“Well, you learn more each time,” Eleanor said. “Like, there’s a section where––”
A smack from Hilda Berg’s shooting stars knocked Eleanor out of the sky. She sighed, and exited the level.
“Let me show you.”
She navigated back to the large Die between the two islands on the map.
“What’s the Die for?”
“It’s where King Dice lives,” Dania explained. “He’s like the sub-villain, before you fight The Devil. Oh yeah, the main villain is The Devil.”
“But yeah, he’s a casino owner, you can only get to the next island if you bring him the souls of the people you’re attacking. You’re fighting bosses to get their souls.”
“Sorta,” Dania shrugged. “It’s weird, you know…King Dice is obviously a bad guy. Like…obviously. He’s got a snarl. But I don’t know, he’s kinda cool. I feel like I enjoy the game for its world more than its gameplay.”
“The worldbuilding does seem especially strong,” Gwen commented. “It’s not self-referential or satire, it relishes that 30s aesthetic.”
“People have compared it to Undertale,” Eleanor said. “They enjoy the characters specifically, since everyone is three-dimensional – not literally – even if you only get little snippets of personality in the game proper.”
“I’d assume there’s already a host of fanfic.”
“I haven’t even looked and I can confirm that there is,” Eleanor added. “So here’s what I was talking about.” She hovered Cuphead over a dot on the ground, prompting a sign announcing “Funhouse Frazzle.” In the level, Cuphead ran past toy cars and toy ducks, flipping gravity to walk on the ceiling while fighting rockets on unicycles and two-faced walls.
“Okay, feeling a little bit of sensory overload now,” Gwen said. “How do you stay focused?”
“Just practice,” Eleanor said. “This is what I mean. You have to play the levels a thousand times to perfect them. Once to figure out this duck is here” – she shot the duck – “once to remember to flip gravity here” – she hit the switch, sending Cuphead to the ceiling – “once to figure out you have to shoot the walls in the eyes.” She leapt over toy cars, changing Cuphead’s gravity while continuing to shoot at the yellow eye in the center of the––
Eleanor leaned back in her chair as Cuphead’s ghost floated to the top of the screen. “And once to avoid those little lip enemies they throw at you.”
“How many times have you played this level?” Gwen asked.
“Dozens,” Eleanor said, slamming Z to begin the level again. “It’s quick, each level only takes about two minutes to complete so you can just bash your head at the wall until you break through.”
“Can you bash your head at that wall?” Gwen said, pointing to the yellow-eyed wall in the game.
“Her head is a cup,” Dania said. “If she bashes into the wall, she’ll break.”
“It’s fun,” Eleanor stated emphatically. “It’s frustrating, but the kind that makes you want to complete it, not throw the controller.”
“Which is good,” Dania commented. “Since the controller is your entire laptop.”
“Maybe it’d be easier with an XBOX controller,” Eleanor said. “But they’re not releasing the patch for that until––”
A rogue bullet from a star-shaped cannon took out Cuphead again. Eleanor breathed hard.
“Want to take a break and come eat lunch?” Gwen offered.
“Fine,” Eleanor said. “But after that, I’m coming right back.”
Image Source: WinCert